BROOKLYN, Mich. — Another Michigan mishap for Jimmie Johnson.
The five-time Sprint Cup champion crashed nose first into a wall in his No. 48 Chevrolet during a practice session Saturday. Johnson was evaluated and released from the infield care center, but the accident forced his team to prepare a backup car — and now he faces quite a challenge trying to win a Cup race at Michigan International Speedway for the first time.
“I’m a little puzzled as to why I spun out going in because I’ve had great entry stability — even on that run I had great entry stability,” Johnson said. “To me it felt like I lost downforce just from the traffic scenario. I’m not really sure — either way we have a torn up car.”
Johnson qualified third Friday, but he’ll have to start from the rear now with the backup car.
Johnson is one driver who could afford a problem like this. He’s won four times this season, leads the standings by a whopping 75 points and has already wrapped up a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But Johnson is plenty motivated this weekend. MIS is one of only five tracks on the Cup schedule where he has never won. He’s 0 for 23 in Cup races in the Irish Hills.
“Yeah, I do pay attention to the tracks I haven’t won at,” Johnson said. “It’s more on the front side going to the event and building excitement about racing at the track and wanting to win. When the race starts, it doesn’t go through my mind at that point.”
Johnson has come close at Michigan. In August of 2011, he finished a solid second. The following June, he was fifth.
Last August, he had to start from the back because of an engine switch. He was leading the race anyway with under 10 laps to go, but his engine faltered.
Earlier this year, Johnson smacked the wall in the final laps at Michigan. He was trying to chase down eventual winner Greg Biffle, but a tire gave way and he dropped all the way to 28th.
“We’ve been so close that it certainly enters my mind at that point,” Johnson said. “I’ve worked real hard on my driving style to get better fuel mileage here. It seems like we’ve covered that gap, but we’ve had a mechanical or two. We blew a tire this last spring when we were here. So, there have been a lot of reasons why, but I really look forward to the day I’m able to pull into Victory Lane over here.”
Chicagoland, Homestead, Watkins Glen and Kentucky are the other tracks on this year’s series schedule where Johnson hasn’t won a Cup race — and he has no more than a dozen starts at any of those other venues.
MIS repaved its track before its 2012 Cup races, and speeds have soared. Joey Logano qualified first Friday at 203.949 mph, the ninth-fastest speed by a pole winner in NASCAR history.
“You’ve got to maintain track position,” Johnson said. “I think the secret to winning here really falls into the hands of the engineer and the crew chief in what decisions they make late in the race to maintain track position. I think that’s where the key is. For the driver, when you’re out there practicing, you’re going so fast around here and you’re usually running by yourself, that it’s easy to set the car up to run in clean air. And you don’t always get that luxury.”
Saturday’s crash added some adversity. Afterward, Johnson still wasn’t sure why his car spun out of control.
“We are trying to figure out what really happened because I had no sign of loose and certainly spun out and crashed,” he said. “Loose was not in the characteristics of the car, and then I end up spinning out and going in. It would be nice to figure out why so we know.”
At least Johnson’s latest problem at MIS came up before the start of the actual race.
He was able to practice with the backup car a bit Saturday and remains confident heading into today’s 400-mile, 200-lap run.
“Very good backup car,” he said. “Went out and put down an eight- or 10-lap run there at the end that I would put up against anybody’s time.”